49-year old Cynthia Baker loves to work. She cannot remember a time when she didn’t. Wherever she’s lived, she’s worked. She worked as a young, single mother in Michigan. As a married woman in New York. And as a divorced mother of 4 in Maryland. There were some jobs she loved. Those were the ones that paid well, had good benefits, recognized her hard work, and gave her added responsibilities and promotions. Others were less fulfilling but helped Cynthia contribute to the family budget so she was grateful to have them.
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Linda Dutton wears a porkpie hat. Like the lid itself and the jazz musicians who made it popular, she is a cool classic; bopping to the beat of her own drum and, at 52, comfortable in her own skin. As she tells her story, she is inclined to long verbal riffs, peppered with bits of slam poetry of her own creation. Listening to her is like listening to an improvisational jazz piece, freeform, and a little hard to pin down. You never know where it’s going to take you but you know it’s going to be someplace good – so if you’re smart, you’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride. Only then do you realize that what at first seemed a bit extemporaneous actually has structure, direction, and a great deal of lyrical passion. Throughout her life – just like the jazz and R&B musicians she loves – Linda has known when to lay back, when to break out, and when to step up and take the lead. And when she does, she nails it.
26-year-old Sarah grew up in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. By her own admission, she preferred the county. It was safer and quieter and had better schools. She began high school at Overlea, a successful public school with a good reputation. But when her parents split up, she moved back to the city with her father. This decision forced her to switch schools. She had her first child, a daughter, when she was 16, which delayed her high school graduation by a year. Eventually, after night school and Saturday classes, Sarah graduated from Southwestern High School (a failing city school, which was ultimately closed). Sarah’s mother didn’t see her daughter graduate. She died of an accidental drug overdose the same week Sarah turned 18.
When I arrived at Jackie’s house for our interview, I was greeted at the door by two of her children, Deasia and Darius.
“Who’s the oldest?” I asked them. Four-year-old Darius reluctantly pointed to his 9-year-old sister.
“And who’s the boss?” I inquired further. Both Deasia and Darius quickly pointed to Mom.
“Smart kids,” I said to Jackie. She smiled and then quietly ushered them upstairs to do homework, which, surprisingly (kids being kids) they did without protest.
“Good kids, too,” I added, amused.
“Most of the time,” she chuckled with just a hint of amazement herself.
Twenty-three year old Brittany is, shall we say, outspoken. That is not to say she is pushy or loud or demanding of attention. It’s just that she’s not afraid to speak up. From the first day of orientation – when Counselor Yvonne Moten asked for volunteers to read aloud from the Caroline Center handbook and Brittany volunteered for every turn, to the day before graduation when the women were asked to reflect on their Caroline Center experience and Brittany offered 10 reflections for every one the other CNA’s offered – Brittany made her presence known.
In some ways, Wendi’s story is a familiar one. Like many of her Caroline Center colleagues, she had adult responsibility thrust upon her while still a child. Her father left home when Wendi was just 14 years old, leaving Wendi and her mother to fend for themselves. To help out, Wendi went to work at a McDonald’s. She was good at it and after a while became a manager. She stayed there for 4 years before taking a job as an assistant manager at a Target. By age 19 she was living on her own. She is not afraid of work; she has already worked more than half her life.
On the first day of each new session, before class begins, the latest Caroline Center trainees gather together for orientation. After a few announcements, the staff turns the floor over to the women for what has become a familiar ritual. As they go around the room, each woman is asked to introduce herself and share with the others what it felt like to receive her letter of acceptance into the program. Without fail, what begins as a routine exercise in icebreaking eventually takes on aspects of the sacramental.
To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it…who is to say that is not greatness? William Makepeace Thackery
For the 53rd class of Caroline Center nursing assistant trainees, the nearly 4-month long program flew by. And now here they were – in the same room where just 15 weeks earlier they had quietly introduced themselves to each other and nervously waited for orientation to begin – about to debrief their instructors on the week of clinicals they had just completed at various healthcare centers around town. Back in September, their blue scrubs were stiff and starchy with newness. Now, they were well worn and broken in, the uniform of true professionals. The course had flown by, which is not to say it was easy. For months the women grappled with anatomy and physiology, struggled with medical terminology, and mastered state of the art patient care. And then they were sent into the field to practice on site what they’d learned in the lab. For a week they worked alongside other healthcare professionals at places like St. Elizabeth’s, Bayview, and Maria Health Care. They had learned a great deal and were eager to report on the experience.